Follow these rules and your dinner table will be everyone's favorite place to linger.
I come from a long line of dinner table lingerers. The dinner table of my childhood was a place where people stayed for hours. There was always another joke to tell, another conversation to have about world affairs, another story from the day to share. My father would often tell stories of his father’s antics at the dinner table, turning napkins into hats and telling funny stories from his own childhood and young adulthood. Similarly, my husband, who grew up in Brazil, has many fond memories of family meals that would last for hours, with everyone sharing stories and telling jokes.
So when my husband and I set out to have our own family, both of us made family dinners a priority. We had visions of our young children oohing and aahing over special dishes with witty jokes flying back and forth, but … (you know where this is going, right?)
We were taken aback when our boys weren’t dinner table naturals. One had almost no interest in food—he eats to live rather than lives to eat—and the other wanted to talk only about Curious George and recite lines from Where the Wild Things Are. Not exactly what we had in mind.
Now that our boys are 7 and 9, things have changed: Family dinners have become much more of what we hoped they would be—a time to reconnect, a time to share about our day, a time to expose our kids to conversations that are important to us.
In looking back over the past five years, I see some things we have done that helped improve the dynamic and have made our dinner table a place where we all want to linger. Here are the five general rules we try to live by during dinner.
1. Make it comfortable
For years our younger son just couldn’t sit still. He would squirm, wriggle and hop up and down from his chair. It drove us nuts!
Then finally one day he told us that the back of the chair was uncomfortable. We offered him a pillow, and like magic the squirming stopped. Now, I’m not saying you should have only upholstered chairs, but think about what can make your eating space appealing.
Clearing the table completely before setting it for dinner (no papers or piles), having comfortable chairs or benches and having plenty of room so people don’t feel crowded are all great ways to make the space more welcoming.
2. Start with a game
Some nights people just aren’t ready to talk. On those evenings we often start with a check-in game. Sometimes it is Rose and Thorn. (Everyone shares the best part of their day, their “rose,” and the hardest part of their day, their “thorn.”) Other times it is Kind, Brave and Failed. (Each person lists one time they were kind, one time they were brave, and one time they failed that day—all are celebrated.)
There are also great conversation starter game kits that you can buy just for this purpose. Whatever way you go, these icebreakers allow everyone to get their conversational juices flowing.
3. Give everyone a chance to talk
My husband and I make a point of not only asking each boy how his day was but also asking each other the same question. This gives our kids an opportunity to lead the conversation for a bit, and it allows us to model good behavior and have our say in the conversation as well.
4. No fighting over food
For a long time my younger son was quite the picky eater. It drove my husband and me crazy, and we’d often get grumpy at the table over how little he was eating. After a while we realized that all this approach was doing was making dinnertime tense and miserable for everyone, so we decided to go another route. We chose to focus on dinner as a time for connecting and sharing, not a time to pressure our kids to take “one more bite” or finish their broccoli.
It wasn’t an easy transition, but as we made the switch we discovered that not only was our son eating more but also he was trying new foods! So now we strive to have at least one food on the table that each person enjoys so no one will go hungry, we encourage adventurous eating and trying new foods and we keep dinner as a time to focus on spending time together.
5. No electronics
For all of us to stay focused on each other and truly connect, we have a no-electronics-at-the-dinner-table rule—for both kids and grownups. Occasionally the phone will come out to check a fact during a discussion, but other than that we focus on each other and let the texts, calls and emails wait until dinnertime is over.
Written by Jessica Braider for Houzz for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Hal Gatewood